My old colleague Anna Burnside called me up the other week looking for quotes on an article about happiness - and its national measurement in the forthcoming National Household Survey - for Scotland on Sunday. Was delighted to oblige, and I think they're work reprinting here in full. (And of course, any excuse to reprint Raeburn's portrait of the skater - Scottish exuberance at its most elegant).
Do you think attempting to take the nation's happiness into account when constructing legislation is a good idea?
It depends how standardised your idea of "happiness" is. For example, lots of research in this area observes that strong marriages are better for people's spirits, health and prospects - and that separation reduces those indicators. So it's tempting for legislators to then say, "make divorce more difficult" - as the happiness guru Lord Layard does. Many liberals will rightly have a problem with that.
I really suspect the motives of Big Society Tories for introducing this measure - it's easy for a bunch of plutocrats to rhapsodise about how much people lives aren't really defined by material wealth as much as "perception of wellbeing". The fact that they do so while inflicting an unnecessarily brutal round of public sector cuts shows how delusional (or heedlessly arrogant) they are in thinking they could ever be on top of a "happiness" agenda.
Policy makers started to look at happiness in boom times, when they noticed that reported levels of contentment were flatlining as GDP and living standards were rising. Add to the recession the challenges of a low-carbon economy, and in the future we're probably looking at a contracting, or at best a steady-state economy overall. But beware who exactly is peddling a "happiness over wealth" agenda in this context. Intelligent, constructive eco-types like the Green party or the New Economics Foundation - or even the left-of-centre consensus in the Scottish parliament - yes. Ideologically-extremist small-staten Con-Dems... Apply the requisite bargepole.
What kind of practical measures could legislators take to increase our general happiness?
Well... One of the fantasies of the Coalition is that they think there will be a huge rush towards joyous, altruistic social volunteering - clearly a key component of happiness - under conditions where those out of work are increasing in numbers, & those in work are putting excessive hours. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the problem with the Big Society is that it takes too many evenings. One thing governments could do with their powers - after all, they can nationalise globe straddling banks easily enough - is to push down the length of the average working week to 30 hours (NEF say 21 hrs eventually), without a directly proportional reduction in pay.
Yes, one way we can generate contentment in our lives, in a non-material way, is to be pro-social and community minded people. But I think it is verging on cruel surrealism for governments to promote that without pushing back the boundaries of working time in our lives. Then politicians have to trust that we'll use that free time and space wisely and well - because to me, it's the ability to freely extend your capacities as you choose that brings happiness, not some national target or prescription.
Do you think that putting happiness at the centre of policy will play differently in Scotland than in England?
I think in Scotland we have an asset that England, unfortunately, lacks - which is a positive, progressive, optimistic, even futuristic version of national identity. This is something that we've been explicitly concerned with for 30 years, even since Alastair Gray's great appeal to "work as if you were in the early days of a better nation". We have up here the potential to tap into a collective spirit of wellbeing through sport, culture, heritage, media. I don't get the sense that we're seething with a sense of resentment & lost status in the way that post-empire England is. Much of the appeal of political nationalism in Scotland is about hope and vision.
So actually, I think the steady journey towards independence, with more and more Scots gaining more control over major institutions in their own society, is one of the biggest boosts towards national happiness that you could devise! Its perhaps more about optimism than happiness in Scotland - a desire to play an active part in your own future.
Is there something in our psyche, Calvinism or something else, which makes us suspicious of happiness as a goal?
It's always the charge, isn't it? Someone says, "what a sunny day", and someone else says, "aye, we'll pay for it!" But I've just been reviewing the productions of BBC Scotland's Comedy Unit over the last few days - and you could hardly say that these don't evidence a healthy national propensity for fun and irreverence - admittedly somewhat hairy-arsed in tone at times. I think it's never going to be all Californian happy-clappiness in Scorland - indeed, the better positive psychologists say you need an good dash of minatory pessimism to strengthen your happy outlook. I think, as the old Rikki Fulton show had it, our national mood is "Scotch and wry". Forwards, but with a Connery-esque eyebrow raised high.